The deliberate, political moves that led to Afzal Guru’s death

by Feb 10, 2013

Shortly after Afzal Guru, the convicted mastermind behind the December 2001 attack on Parliament, was hanged on Saturday morning, Union Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde outlined the course of the mercy petition from Guru - and the administrative action that had led up to the execution.

The timeline that Shinde traced is revealing, because it provides a context to his recent comment about "Hindu terror", at the Congress chintan shivir at Jaipur. That comment was initially dismissed as symptomatic of Shinde's motormouth indiscretion, which he later toned down somewhat, but there is reason to believe, in the light of subsequent events, that it may have been a carefully orchestrated offensive to provide a political tinge to Guru's execution.

It is also indicative of the extent of politicking and posturing that underlies the decision to hang Guru at this point in time, when the government had been dragging its feet on the matter for close to eight years. And, taken together with the politics that revolves around the pending death sentence against several others - including the conspirators in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination (and Sonia Gandhi's stated views on clemency for the convicts in that case) - it has the potential to jeopardise the hard-won peace in Kashmir.

The timeline that Sushil Kumar Shinde traced in the Afzal Guru case is revealing. PTI

The timeline that Sushil Kumar Shinde traced in the Afzal Guru case is revealing. PTI

Shinde disclosed on Saturday that the Union Home Ministry had first recommended rejection of Guru's mercy petition in 2011 (when P Chidambaram was Home Minister). But the then President, Pratibha Patil, who from all accounts was about as presidential as an ornamental plant in the Mughal Gardens of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, evidently sat on the mercy petition, elevating buck-passing to a high art.

Pranab Mukherjee took over as President in July 2012, the beneficiary of a twist in the political tale in the Delhi durbar although it appeared that Sonia Gandhi was rather more keen to put up Hamid Ansari as the UPA candidate. Barely a month later, in August 2012, Shinde took over as Home Minister - as part of a larger Cabinet reshuffle that saw Chidambaram take over as Finance Minister.

Shinde said on Saturday that soon thereafter, President Mukherjee returned all pending mercy petitions for reconsideration to the Home Ministry.  The file on Afzal Guru's mercey petition, in particular, was sent back in November 2012 for the Home Ministry to apply its mind again.

Shinde then added that he "examined the file carefully and recommended to the President on January 21 for rejection of Afzal Guru's petition."

The President acted on that recommendation - and rejected Guru's mercy petition on February 3, and Shinde then formally gave approval for Guru's execution - and set February 9 as the date for it to be carried out.

Read this chronology with Shinde's comment at the Congress chintan shivir - that the RSS and the BJP were organising terror camps to spawn "Hindu terror" - and one thing stands out.  Shinde made that speech on January 20, just the day before he recommended to the President that Guru's mercy petition be dismissed. Assuming that due application of mind would have preceded the formal recommendation to the President for rejection of the mercy petition, this suggests that Shinde knew at the time that he made his controversial speech that he would be writing to the President and, in a sense, setting a date for Guru's death.

Shinde's comments must therefore be seen not as a slip of the tongue but as a deliberate ploy intended to act as a political countervailing force to balance the action that he knew was imminent -  the execution of Guru - and the perception among the UPA that it would inflame Muslim passions, particularly in Kashmir. It is indicative of the cynical lengths to which this government will go in order to put a 'secular' spin on what ought to have been a clinical assessment of the merits (or lack thereof) of a mercy petition on behalf of the convicted mastermind of one of India's most outrageous terrorist plots  - an attack on Parliament.

The plot gets complicated even further by the fact that Guru's execution was effected by jumping the queue in respect of other prisoners on death row. Arguably the most sensational of the cases is the one relating to Rajiv Gandhi's assassination, for which three convicts are awaiting the death sentence. But in that case, Sonia Gandhi had written to the then President KR Narayanan arguing in favour of clemency for those convicted.  Although that argument may have been made in her personal capacity - as the widow of the slain former Prime Minister - it acquires immeasurable weight given her status as the power behind the UPA throne.

It is hard to visualise a scenario under which Shinde, who has claimed in the past that he is "Sonia Gandhi's soldier", will advance the case for the execution of the convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination plot - overruling, in one sense, Sonia Gandhi's own personal sentiments in the matter.

In other words, decisions on executing convicts in two cases - both of which virtually amounted to a war on the state (one involving the assassination of a former Prime Minister and the other relating to an attack on Parliament) - will have been taken not on the basis of a principled stand on the merits or demerits of the death penalty but on personal and political considerations.

Elected Assembly members in Kashmir - from both the National Conference and the People's Democratic Party (to say nothing of separatists like Geelani) - have pointed to this asymmetry in the way death sentences are being carried out, and flagged Kashmiri resentment over it. Perceptions such as those  will only render the situation in Kashmir rather more combustible, squandering the hard-won peace of the past few years.

In the absence of a principled, consistent stand on the death penalty, such double-standards reek of politics, which bodes ill for the future - and not just for Kashmir either.

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